Hong Kong finance students still looking locally for jobs, but some fear for future

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Hong Kong finance students still looking locally for jobs, but some fear for future

Cora Sheung, a penultimate-year business and finance student at HKUST, has won case study competitions, performed well in two internships at global banks, and scored consistently good grades. But Sheung (not her real name) is still worried about her chances of landing a job in banking in Hong Kong when she graduates. “It would be naive to say that the unrest in Hong Kong isn’t having an impact on hiring. It’s getting a lot more difficult for students to secure offers this year, given the local political situation and the global economic slowdown,” says Sheung.

Still, Sheung says she ideally wants her first job in banking to be in Hong Kong and is not planning to move. “Overall, I have faith in Hong Kong as a global financial hub, because we’ve conquered a lot of other challenges, like SARS and the financial crisis. Even though Singapore is benefiting from an inflow of investments, Hong Kong’s position as the gateway to China is unassailable, so for people with finance degrees it remains the city in Asia with the most opportunities,” says Sheung.

These sentiments are shared by some (but not all) of the nine Hong Kong-based finance students who spoke to us about their career plans and the future of the local finance sector. Belying the stereotype that aspiring bankers are internationally mobile from the get-go, students who grew up in Hong Kong are especially reluctant to start their careers elsewhere, despite the ongoing civil unrest sweeping their city. “I want to work here because it’s my hometown, and I want to contribute to a place where I have a strong sense of belonging,” says Rema Jyun (also a pseudonym), who’s studying economics and finance at HKU.

Fellow HKU student Ryker Mou – who like the other undergrads quoted asked us not to use his real name – also cites a “sense of belonging” as the main reason he wants to look for a finance job locally, despite the “awful political situation”. He’s also convinced that the market “isn’t that bad” and points to Hong Kong leapfrogging US exchanges to become the world’s top location for new listings this year.

Other students, including Savannah Zhu from CUHK, highlight the underlying transparency and efficiency of the Hong Kong financial system, which hasn’t suffered significant operational outages even as clashes between protestors and police have moved into the financial district in recent weeks. Zhu’s confidence in Hong Kong “bouncing back” as a financial hub also stems from the territory being ranked the world’s freest economy by The Heritage Foundation, a US think tank, for 25 years running.

CUHK’s Henrik Zang is another finance major who’s upbeat about being able to have a good career in banking in Hong Kong, despite the economy having recently fallen into recession. He says mainland cities like Shanghai won’t be able replicate Hong Kong’s “unique ability” to connect China to Western markets, or displace Hong Kong as the largest financial centre in ex-Japan Asia, at least not in the next 10 years. It’s also easier for foreign banks to find the skills they need in Hong Kong rather than the mainland, says Zang (all names used in this report are pseudonyms).

“As long as investors see the value of Hong Kong as a gateway to China, they will keep their capital here for a long-term investment, despite any short-term losses,” adds HKUST finance student Karmala Gwok, who will also look for a Hong Kong-based banking role when she graduates in 2021. Camryn Loeng from HKU, meanwhile, is excited about new jobs opening up in Hong Kong thanks to the economic expansion of the Greater Bay Area, of which Hong Kong is a part. She believes the city’s political crisis is a serious but “short-term phenomenon”.

While the majority of finance majors we spoke with have an optimistic outlook about banking careers in Hong Kong, there were a number of exceptions. “If the Chinese government strengthens its control over Hong Kong, the city will lose its advantages as a financial hub and will be no different from other Chinese cities,” says Pasco Dang from HKU. “The unrest has already affected Hong Kong’s status as a global financial centre, due to a loss of stability, which is something that multinational banks value the most,” he adds.

Jaliyah Stokes, an undergraduate from Europe enrolled on HKU’s BBA programme, says the unrest has “severely deterred investors” and it might take Hong Kong years to build a solid financial reputation again. “Hong Kong is rapidly losing momentum as a financial hub, and many Southeast Asian countries are doing well, so people investing in Asia might prefer to go elsewhere, like Malaysia or Singapore,” says Stokes, who is uncertain whether to stay in Hong Kong after he completes his degree and will consider banking jobs in Singapore.

In contrast to the students who think Hong Kong is a good location long-term for a career in finance, Stokes believes that as China liberalises its economy, Shenzhen will ultimately attract more investment than its rival across the border and will also start to compete with Hong Kong when it comes to banking jobs. Finnegan Tow from Hong Kong Baptist University agrees. “Hong Kong’s position as a global financial hub will remain in the short to mid term, but in the long run, the trend of Shanghai and Shenzhen gaining more strength will only accelerate,” he says.

Tow says these long-term trends, coupled with Hong Kong’s current crisis, mean he will look for banking jobs on the mainland as well as locally when he graduates. “For me, Hong Kong is no longer the definite number-one place to pursue a finance career in Asia,” he adds.

Meanwhile, local students face a more immediate challenge, if they want jobs at Chinese banks in Hong Kong. As we reported last week, mainland banks are refusing to hire students if their involvement in or support for the pro-democracy movement is flagged up. Felix Yip, a lecturer in management at Hong Kong Baptist University, told the Financial Times this week that HR teams at Chinese firms are stepping up their background checks of applicants’ social media accounts. “They will not say it publicly but informally they are hesitant to hire Hong Kong young graduates,” he said, following allegations from Law Ka-chung, a former chief economist of Bank of Communications, that he was forced to resign because he was a Hongkonger holding a top job within a Chinese company.

Image credit: Joseph Chan, Unsplash

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